The general-election campaign finally, definitively got under way on Tuesday, when Mitt Romney won Republican primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia, and all but snuffed out Rick Santorum's increasingly outlandish hopes.
With seven months of charges and countercharges from Romney and President Obama to look forward to, it will be interesting to see whether the media are up to the task of parsing truth from fiction -- or if, instead, they will settle for the disreputable journalistic game of "Candidate A said X today, while Candidate B responded with Y."
The first test may well be Obama's tough speech Tuesday about the budget proposal put forth by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. Among other things, Obama called Ryan's handiwork "radical" and "thinly veiled social Darwinism." And he made much of Romney's praise for the Ryan budget, mocking the former Massachusetts governor for calling it "marvelous."
So, let's unleash the X's and Y's, shall we?
Politico covered Obama's speech, and ran a separate story on Ryan, who released a statement referring to Obama's "failed agenda" and "reckless budgets." The Washington Post characterized the president's speech as "a stern and stinging rebuke," balancing Obama's words with Ryan's statement. Actual numbers are relegated to a fact-checking piece by Glenn Kessler, who seems reluctant to say anything definitive. PolitiFact, which came under considerable criticism for bestowing its "Lie of the Year" on Democratic critics of Ryan's Medicare plan last year, has not weighed in yet.
Interestingly, the New York Times appears to contradict the Republican view of reality pretty directly with regard to Obama's statement that the Ryan budget would cut taxes for millionaires by $150,000 a year. The way this passage is written is a little confusing, but it's hard not to come away thinking that Obama got it exactly right:
The White House's calculation for the tax benefit is straightforward, but Republicans on the House Budget Committee say it is wrong. The average household earning more than $1 million would gain $46,000 from the House budget's repeal of the Medicare hospital insurance tax that was part of the health care law, the Republicans said, and $105,000 from the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts that Mr. Obama wants to see expire next year.
So if "Republicans ... say it is wrong," how is it that the tax cuts add up to $151,000? Yes, the next paragraph goes on to say that might change. But it might not. The Republican Party has demonstrated little in the way of concern about revenue gaps its policies create, especially when those gaps benefit the 1 percent.
Which brings me to reality -- that is, to the world of numbers and actual math. The New Yorker's financial columnist, James Surowiecki, analyzes the Ryan proposal this week and neatly disposes of the notion that it is anything other than a thoroughly political document whose central premises don't hold up, based as they are on three absurd nos: no tax increases; no cuts in military spending; and no federal intervention in holding down Medicare costs, even as he seeks to privatize the program.
The result, Surowiecki reports, is the Congressional Budget Office has found that all the cuts Ryan proposes -- to college assistance, Medicaid, food stamps and other aspects of the social safety net -- would, by 2050, come out of just 0.75 percent of the federal budget.
"[T]he Ryan plan is not about fiscal responsibility," Surowiecki writes. "It's about pushing a very particular, and very ideological, view of the proper relationship between government and society."
And it's the reality of those numbers that the media ought to ask about when they seek out Ryan for comment -- or, more important, when they ask Romney why he thinks the Ryan budget is so "marvelous."
Romney, as we know, is notoriously slippery and flexible, and my concern is that his reputation will work to his advantage. If Rick Santorum were in the lead and had embraced the Ryan budget plan, campaign reporters would assume that Santorum really meant it, and question him accordingly.
But with Romney, there's an assumption -- grounded in his record -- that he is, at root, a moderate businessman, not all that ideological, who will say anything and embrace any issue. When the time comes to move to the center, he can make his support for the Ryan budget disappear as though he were, oh, shaking an Etch-a-Sketch.
Words ought to have more consequences that. If Obama can say something demonstrably true, and the media's principal response is to quote the other side as saying Y, it's going to be a long, unenlightening spring. And summer. And fall.
Follow Dan Kennedy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dankennedy_nu
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